Long Read: How Lyon have replaced Tanguy Ndombele
When it comes to developing players and selling them at a huge profit, few clubs in European football are better than Lyon in the French top-flight. A case in point and the focus of this analysis saw the French international central midfielder Tanguy Ndombele leave the French side to join Spurs in the English Premier League for a reported £65M. This deal comes after Lyon had fully owned the player for a single season. Their outlay? Reportedly a £2M loan fee and then an £8M fee to make the loan permanent. An incredible profit considering not only the initial outlay paid for the player but also the level of performance and contributions that they extracted from Ndombele. You could comfortably argue that those comfortably justified the financial outlay before you even factor in the profit from his latest transfer.
The idea behind this article, however, lies not in a simple analysis when looking at transfer profit. Instead, I want to concentrate on the contributions made by Ndombele on the pitch and examine exactly what Lyon have lost and what they have to replace. This is the crux of any transfer deal made by intelligent clubs. Often now the financial aspect of a transfer deal is largely secondary, the actual financial value of the deal, after all, tends to be spread over the course of the players’ new contract after all. This means that with Ndombele signing a reported six-year deal the value of the contract should be spread over the course of that term. This should see Lyon receive roughly £9.1M per financial year over 6 years for the deal.
If the financial side of the deal is not the most important for the selling club then what is? It is quite simple. The decision of when to sell a player is often dictated by their level of output. If a player is perceived as highly talented but his tangible output on the field is poor then it makes sense to sell. It a player is perceived as young and raw and his output starts to rise then it makes sense to hold the player at the club and wait for perception to match his output, this should drive his market value up. The difficult decision comes when a player’s output and perception are both high. This invariably attracts interest from other clubs but do you really want to sell at that point? Of course, the reality for most clubs is that they can be left relatively powerless when a player wants to move. It is becoming increasingly common for a player to be willing to run down their contract and thus deflate their market value and lessen the fee that their current club can expect to receive. This means that once a player decides they want to leave, for whatever reason, it is exceptionally difficult to change their minds.
That was the situation that Lyon found themselves in this summer with Tanguy Ndombele. There was something of a perfect storm around the player. His performances over two seasons with the French club, first of all on loan and then permanently, had more than justified the reported £10M (£2M loan fee and £8M transfer fee) that Lyon paid to Amiens. Ndombele had become a full French international and was attracting significant interest from huge clubs around Europe.
The purpose of this tactical analysis, however, is not to look specifically at Ndombele but to examine how Lyon have gone about replacing his output.
First of all, let’s see exactly what Lyon have lost.
The above are graphics from the excellent Smarterscout showing the output from Ndombele over the 2017/18 and then the 2018/19 seasons at Lyon. The first thing that stands out is that he does everything well. There were slight drop-offs in his attacking and defensive outputs from the first year to the second but this can be generally attributed to a slight change in team style and structure. This is further evidenced by an increase in his ball retention scores from 68 in 2017/18 to 82 in 2018/19. His pass into box score, interestingly, also rises from 25 to 45.
If we look at data from Wyscout then we start to see an interesting evolution in the playing style from Ndombele. Over the two seasons, we saw the number of dribbles attempted per game by Ndombele fall from 5.5 per 90 minutes in 2017/18 to 4.9 per 90 minutes in 2018/19. Over that same period, the number of passes played by Ndombele into the final third went up from 7.86 in 2017/18 to 10.53 in 2018/19. This suggests two things, firstly, that with improved coaching Ndombele was taught when to dribble with the ball and when to look to combine with a teammate, and secondly, that Ndombele became much more effective in the attacking phase when progressing the ball. This made the midfielder far more effective when Lyon were in possession. Over the same period, we see the defensive metrics from Ndombele remain relatively stable. In 2017/18 he managed 4.1 interceptions and 6.76 recoveries of the ball in the opposition half per 90 minutes. In 2018/19 these metrics came in at 3.82 interceptions and 6.84 ball recoveries per 90 minutes.
It became more common last season to see Ndombele playing the type of passes that we see above. In possession of the ball just inside his own half, we see Ndombele initially concentrating on the man wide on the left who is in space. As he shapes to play the pass, however, he reverses the ball and plays a driven through ball that splits through the opposition defensive block and releases his forward player into space behind the defensive line.
As Ndombele is looking to make the pass because of his body shape the opposition are naturally attempting to shift across in order to negate the threat of the wide player. Because of this, the defenders are caught completely off balance as Ndombele instead drives a pass centrally. This makes it more difficult for the opposition defenders to read and react to the through ball.
As Ndombele passes the ball in this manner he also immediately progresses the ball from the central third to the final third and bypasses the entire opposition defensive block. This single-pass takes eight opposition players out of the game.
We have a similar situation here as Ndombele drives forward in possession of the ball. As the defensive players move to engage him there are options to the left and to the right that would see the attacking play moved wide. Instead of taking this option, however, we see Ndombele now look for an opportunity to make an immediate progressive pass that releases a teammate into advanced areas. This pass is the very definition of a progressive pass as it takes eight opposition players out of the game in a single action.
We should also reference the defensive output that Lyon have lost with the sale of Ndombele. His style in the centre of the midfield is probably best described as ‘all action’ and a lot of his defensive output is down to this profile. A lot of the interceptions that we see from Ndombele come as a direct result of his work rate and pressing. He has often moved to close down a direct opponent quickly and is in a position to disrupt the pass immediately.
In the above example, we see Ndombele moving to close a player down immediately as the opposition looks to transition into their attacking phase. As the man in possession of the ball looks to play past the Lyon press he identifies what seems to be a safe pass. As the ball travels forward over those five yards, however, we see that Ndombele has moved to close the gap and is in position to challenge for and win the ball.
A similar situation can be seen here as the opposition look to combine and play through the players of pressure from the Lyon attack and midfield. The first pass successfully bypasses two Lyon players and then the receiving player moves the ball on to the next level. He does so thinking that the receiving player is free and will be able to take possession comfortably. Instead, we see Ndombele moving forward from a deeper position to challenge the opposition player. As the ball travels across the French international engages and wins the ball before leading the transition for his team to the attacking phase.
So, if Tanguy Ndombele is such an all-round player and a key member of the Lyon first team then how can they go around replacing him following his transfer to Spurs? Ideally, clubs will look to replace sales from within. If you are able to simply promote a player from your youth team to replace the outgoing player then you will save a significant amount of money and integrate a player that already knows the club and its playing style. This is, of course, not always possible and the vast majority of clubs will look to sign players externally to help replace a player.
If Tanguy Ndombele is as good as I have stated above, and he is, then how can Lyon find a player to fill his role in their team? Surely if there is a younger and cheaper player with a similar tactical and statistical style to Ndombele then Spurs could have simply signed them instead? Well, yes, but that is being slightly reductive. Ndombele is a central midfielder with a very specific profile and one that is not easily emulated. So, instead of looking to replace a player like Ndombele like for like a smart club, and Lyon are a smart club, will look to isolate certain outcomes that the midfielder produced and replace them instead. This means that in my opinion Lyon have looked to replace Ndombele not by signing one player but by signing two, and one of them is a central defender.
Here we have the Smartercout profiles for those two players. The central midfielder Thiago Mendes who was signed for a reported £19.8M from fellow French side Lille and the central defender Joachim Andersen who arrived for £21.6M from Italian side Sampdoria.
Let’s look at Mendes first. The midfielder is slightly older than we may have expected as he is already 27 and may have a limited resale value. He does, however, come in with experience in the league and a track record of production. He profiled well as a progressive passer and as a solid defensive player. Let’s consider the Wyscout data again. Mendes dribbles far less than Ndombele with 1.45 dribbles per 90 minutes last season. Otherwise, though his profile is similar. He attempts 10.53 passes into the final third and registered 6.05 interceptions and 10 recoveries in the opposition half per 90 minutes. Excellent defensive numbers.
Joachim Andersen is the type of signing that is much more common from Lyon. at 23-years-old the Danish international profiles extremely well and has already impressed in Serie A with Sampdoria. He should come with significant resale value. A defender who is excellent in possession of the ball he is equally comfortable when defending whether in space or in a compact defensive block. As a central defender, his statistical profile is obviously different but he still registered 9.32 passes per 90 minutes into the opposition final third and 11.39 recoveries of the ball in the opposition half per 90. Combine this with 3.89 defensive duels and 4.54 aerial duels won per 90 and you have an interesting defensive prospect who is near top-level in possession of the ball.
In terms of his passing Mendes is a very creative player. He links play intelligently by often eschewing the obvious pass in favour of one that moves his team forward into a stronger position. The example above is a case in point. The obvious pass for Mendes would have been to the right where he could release the right-back who is moving into space towards a high line. Instead, as the right attacker moves inside, and empties the space, we see Mendes play the pass forward into this player. This creates an advanced platform from which Lille could play and allows the right-back to continue moving vertically. Eventually, the player receiving the ball is able to play in the right-back as he moves higher.
This time we see Mendes playing through the defensive line after he has already carried the ball into a more advanced position. We should note here that carrying the ball is not the same as dribbling. There is no opposition player to face so there is no need to dribble. As he carries the ball forward through towards the defensive line we see space open up between opposition players. The pass can then be played through to space behind the defensive line where a teammate can move to collect the ball.
In this example, we begin to see why Mendes is so effective in the defensive phase. The opposition player in possession looks to make a simple pass inside to a player who should be able to receive the ball safely. As the ball is played, however, Mendes reads the intention and times his movement perfectly to move to engage and intercept the ball. His reading of the game and timing of the challenge are excellent for a midfield player.
This time as we see the opposition looking to progress the ball we see Mendes again coming across to intercept the ball. The player looking to receive the ball for the other side is actually very well positioned and in a large pocket of space. He should be able to take possession and then look to play forward. Instead, as the ball is played forward to this player we see Mendes time his interception perfectly as he moves across and wins the ball back.
In terms of sheer passing range and quality Andersen is one of the most interesting young central defenders out there. Here we see an example as Andersen drives his side forward initially before playing a through pass beyond the defensive block into a dangerous area of the field beyond the defensive line. Comfortable when stepping out in possession or the ball or sitting deeper and passing to the wide or central areas we often see Andersen being responsible for progressing the ball.
In this example the pass that is played through breaks through the entire Parma defensive block and creates a goalscoring chance for his side.
Here we again see Andersen in possession of the ball for Sampdoria although this time the opposition is in a more compact and deep defensive block. Most central defenders in this situation would look to access the space wide in order to try to play around the defensive block. This is a perfectly reasonable response to the problems faced by teams when the opposition are compact in this manner. Andersen, however, has the ability and the vision to see the pass that was played instead that takes out eight opposition players and allows Sampdoria to play from a much more advanced position.
As well as being able to pass progressively from the defensive line we also see Andersen providing a calm reassurance to the defensive line, a position that Lyon perhaps struggled with last term. Above we see his positioning for Sampdoria as the ball is played in by Roma from the wide area. Anderson is controlling the space at the front post and as the ball comes over into his zone he is able to deal with the threat calmly before moving the ball forward for his side.
As well as being comfortable when defending in his penalty area Andersen is also capable of defending space behind him in transition. Here we see the opposition looking to play a quick pass into space between the defensive line and the goalkeeper. There is a forward player on the shoulder of the far side defender who is looking to make the run to connect with the pass Instead we see Andersen read the threat and shift across to intercept the ball before the forward can pick it up.
So what have Lyon done?
So, having spent considerably less than the fee that they received from Ndombele we have seen Lyon largely replace his output on the pitch. You could argue that they have lost the ability to dribble in the midfield but this is not a skill that is normally found in central midfielders. With that said, of course, we have to accept that in this regard Ndombele is absolutely elite. They have however retained their ability to pass progressively in the centre of midfield and the defensive output from a midfield player in Mendes. While the Brazilian midfielders in perhaps not as strong in the press as Ndombele is his anticipation and reading of the game is superb.
Lyon have also addressed a weakness in the squad with the addition of Andersen to play as their left-sided central defender. Once again we see value in the deal with the ability of the Danish defender to pass the ball out from the back. His progressive passing ability is fantastic. He also improves their defensive solidity and gives the Lyon squad a more balanced look.
This appears to have been a very strong summer for Lyon in terms of their transfer deals. They have been smart in replacing outgoing players and adding value to their squad in other areas. Whether this will be enough to challenge PSG at the top of the table remains to be seen but it will be interesting to watch.
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